For example, balanced, or integrative reading theory is posited as a more satisfactory interpretation of how students learn to read than either whole language or phonemic based theories. This case is succinctly made by Purcell-Gates (1997), who argues, “most reading theorists…have abandoned such all or nothing approaches and embrace some form of interactive theory of the reading process, while prioritizing different parts of it” (p. 5). Whole language theorists emphasize the importance of learning how to read via an unconscious process of assimilation combined with regular practice in reading “real texts” over time, which taps into the motivational dynamics of students. Phonemic-based methodologies are not rejected, but are contextualized as but one crucial cueing system that may or may not be salient in any given learning situation. A core assumption of whole language advocates is that learning to read is as natural as learning how to speak (Smith, 1985).
Those emphasizing the priority of phonemic-based instruction argue that a mastery of the sight-sound connection (the alphabetic principle) is the foundational baseline upon which success in independent reading depends. This requires the processing of individual phonemes (letter sounds and digraphs – e.g., “sh,” “ch”) and syllable units, typically in a sequential format based on the logic of what should be learned first according to the precepts of the alphabetic principle. As explained by Purcell-Gates, on this assumption, “the reading process is linear, with letters being recognized first feature-by-feature by a visual system and then transferred to a sound (phonemic) system for recognition and held [however briefly] until the next letter is processed in the same way” (p. 5). Thus, on the phonemic-based theory, the processing of every letter is critical.
This represents the very opposite of the whole language assumption, based on a schema theory of learning, which places more emphasis on the brain in which letters and sounds operating as partial cues, (i.e., mental representations) interact with other cues, including meaning-based ones in providing the needed information to read a given text. In whole language approaches, educated guesses are encouraged as an important intellectual process of inference making and internalization, while that approach is rejected categorically in phonemic-based theories. While in the whole language approach, making sense of the text is the primary objective; in the phonemic approach accurate reading of the words is central, without which comprehension is impossible.
In Popperian terms, advocates of balanced theory argue that its mediating approach represents a better approximation “toward the truth.” In short, from this vantage-point “learners need to focus on meaning with real, authentic text and to work on skills” (p. 7). More fundamentally, learning to read is based on “the reciprocal influence of different levels of knowledge held by a reader—from letter featural knowledge of the features of the letters to semantic knowledge.” Even more to the point is the “interaction with each other” (p. 8) of these dimensions of the reading process in their varied influence with specific students or sets of students. Moreover, and this is a key assumption with Purcell-Gates, balanced theory flows along the continuum from a skills orientation to various holistic approaches. What places the continuum in the balanced framework is the rejection of foundational claims that one approach or the other is at the base. The balanced argument is that students learn to read in different ways, and that the primary dynamic is the interactive (or better yet, the transactional) one in the utilization of whatever methodologies, approaches, and sources of materials that best tap into the student’s capacity to learn to read. While certain methods and approaches will have more effect with certain students, in the broad scheme of things, learning to read requires interactive, “whole-part-whole instruction” (p. 8). These are the core concepts of the integrated approach.
The operative assumptions of balanced reading theory are particularly important in the coming to terms with conflicting definitions of adult literacy in that the whole language approach reinforces the metaphorical one of “multiliteracies,” while the phonemic approach emphasizes the foundational premise of reading instruction as the central purpose of what any literacy program should focus on. With the phonemic approach, balanced theory does emphasize reading, along with that of the utilization of “meaningful” text, the exploration of ideas, and the attainment of significant knowledge that can be grasped by students, even if reading ability remains quite limited. Thus programs can, and as argued later, should, focus on both reading development and the progressive mastery of knowledge and insight, even as the ways in which these two aspects of learning are played out with different students are varied in which effectiveness and growth may require more attention to one of these areas than the other, in any given situation. Such may sometimes be the case even with the same student. The underlying argument of balanced theory is that its core concepts and methodologies provide the best accommodation available for this variability of student background and need.